The Bills hope first-round pick Sammy Watkins can be a difference-maker on offense right away
Many NFL teams adopt a “playoffs or bust’’ mentality, but how many actually live it? With the franchise for sale and its future uncertain following the death of team founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr., in March, the Buffalo Bills seem to be going for broke.
How the front office, coaching staff and players want to honor their departed patriarch is clear. “It’s one word: win,’’ president and CEO Russ Brandon says. “The only thing Mr. Wilson was focused on was winning.’’
Unfortunately for the franchise and its fans, the Bills have missed the playoffs for a league-high 14 consecutive seasons.
Employing an aggressive attitude to pay tribute to Wilson and stop this dubious streak, Brandon and general manager Doug Whaley made a series of bold free-agent moves and trades, none larger than sending a 2015 first-round pick to Cleveland to move up five spots in the draft and select the top wide receiver available in Clemson’s Sammy Watkins.
The Bills have made it clear that they are all in with EJ Manuel as their starting quarterback. Not only did they hand him the top playmaker in the draft in Watkins, but they also added blocking depth and didn’t draft another quarterback to compete with him.
Manuel, the only first-round QB in 2013, set a Bills rookie record with 11 touchdown passes. But he missed six games with knee injuries, raising questions about his durability. If he’s not healthy, he won’t have a chance to fulfill his potential as a franchise quarterback. With his size, arm strength and work ethic, all the tools are there.
Manuel and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will have a true No. 1 receiver in Watkins. The Bills did not have a player in the NFL’s top 50 in receptions as veteran Stevie Johnson, since traded to San Francisco, proved incapable of giving Manuel a dominant game-changing target. Watkins, who had 240 career receptions and set 23 school records at Clemson, has the potential to be that guy. He has elite ability to go up and snare passes and make things happen after the catch, and he instantly upgrades Buffalo’s 28th-ranked passing game.
With Watkins drawing coverage, Robert Woods, the first Bills rookie with 40 catches since Lee Evans in 2004, figures to blossom, as does second-year pro Marquise Goodwin. The wild card is former Buc Mike Williams, who is looking to salvage his career under Doug Marrone, his college coach at Syracuse. Former Orange star Rob Moore is Marrone’s new receivers coach.
Tight end remains a pedestrian position with no real playmakers, but Buffalo continues to field one of the NFL’s most potent rushing attacks, led by Fred Jackson’s between-the-tackles power and C.J. Spiller’s speed to the outside. They combined for 1,823 yards. A draft weekend trade with Philadelphia for Bryce Brown was a major upgrade in depth.
Buffalo’s line is led by top center Eric Wood and left tackle Cordy Glenn, who figures to be better in his third season in the league. Overall, however, things regressed in 2013 with Buffalo allowing 48 sacks and converting just 34 percent of its third downs. That’s thrown some jobs open for competition. St. Louis free agent Chris Williams will get a chance to win the starting left guard spot from Doug Legursky, and giant-sized rookies Cyrus Kouandjio (second round) and Seantrel Henderson (seventh round) will push veteran Erik Pears at right tackle.
The Bills lost highly respected coordinator Mike Pettine, who was hired by the Browns as their head coach. But Marrone reacted quickly, signing Jim Schwartz, the ex-Detroit Lions head coach, to run his defense and hiring two other strong defensive assistants in Pepper Johnson (defensive line) and Fred Pagac (linebackers). Pettine ran a hybrid 3-4 scheme, which failed to solve Buffalo’s run-stopping problems but greatly improved its pass rush. Led by three players with 10 sacks or more, the Bills set a club record with 57 sacks and led the AFC. On the back end, Buffalo recorded 23 interceptions, second-most in the league.
Schwartz favors a 4-3 alignment but won’t try to fix what’s not broken and will incorporate some of Pettine’s ideas that favored Buffalo’s personnel so well. The Bills had 41 sacks from defensive linemen, led by Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5), Jerry Hughes (10) and Marcell Dareus (7.5). In Schwartz’s scheme, strong-side linebacker Manny Lawson (4.0 sacks) will play end while solid backups Alan Branch and Corbin Bryant kick inside to tackle. Their value to the team will rise depending on the fate of Dareus, who is facing a league suspension after being arrested in Alabama on felony drug charges.
A big part of Buffalo’s pass-rush success is solid cover corners, and the team returns two strong ones in Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, two former first-round picks. McKelvin justified his four-year, $17 million deal with his best season. Free agent Corey Graham from Baltimore adds great depth and versatility.
The big loss was letting Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd ($54 million deal with Saints) depart in free agency. Byrd is one of the NFL’s great ball-hawks and will be missed. Da’Norris Searcy has talent and will have his first chance to start full time. Aaron Williams, converted from corner, found a home at strong safety and returns to man that spot.
The Bills need greatly improved play from their linebacker corps, especially considering the season-ending ACL injury Kiko Alonso suffered during a workout in July. Alonso led the team with 159 tackles and added four interceptions last season in a sparkling rookie debut. Nigel Bradham, Alonso's potential replacement as a starter, will miss the season opener for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Free agent Brandon Spikes, one of the game’s best run-stoppers, will man the middle. Spikes, who signed a one-year, $3-million deal, wore out his welcome in New England and is motivated to land a long-term contract. Giants free agent Keith Rivers will get a chance to nail down an outside position.
Former Dolphin Dan Carpenter, who signed as a free agent, turned one of the best seasons in Bills’ kicking history into a four-year, $9 million contract. Carpenter converted 33-of-36 field-goal attempts, including 4-of-6 from beyond 50 yards. In a surprising move, the Bills retained career punting leader Brian Moorman, 38, who rejoined the club last October. Moorman averaged just 36.6 net yards, and his 41.2-yard average ranked among the worst in the league. He’ll have to hold off Jake Dombrowski to win the job in camp. Goodwin returns to man kickoff return duties — he averaged 21.9 yards — and McKelvin will handle punts again.
Flipping 6–10 to 10–6 will take more consistency from the offense and better run play by the defense. Ultimately, it’s on Manuel to take this opportunity, stay healthy and prove he’s the franchise quarterback the team needs so desperately. With no first-round pick in 2015 and a future new owner to impress, there is immense pressure on Manuel and the front office to win now.